Monday, 24 February 2014

Ladies and gentleman, I give you, the Queen!

Hello dear reader and welcome to another gripping episode of my blog. Weather has been quite spring like of late with bees and butterflies being visible in the sunny skies. I've also been busy working with Suffolk Wildlife Trust's National Lottery Heritage funded, Networking Nature events at Rendlesham and Felixstowe this week. The rendlesham event was at the Community Hall and involved mainly helping youngsters, on their Half-term break, build bird boxes to take home and hang in their gardens. The event was well attended and the kids loved putting the boxes together and hammering the nails home to the amazed looks from their parents.

One of the finished bird boxes.
Felixstowe saw us on the beachfront next door to 'The Hut' making several types of bird feeders from peanut butter coated toilet roll inners rolled in seed to empty plastic bottles with a wooden spoon stuck through and filled with seed. There was also a nature trail quiz and a detective 'whodunnit' clue hunt for the kids to play as well as a large board game to enjoy. The event ended with a beach scavenger hunt that got the children looking for specific items along the beach. Over 100 kids turned up for the 2 hour session and everyone went home very happy.

Down by the beach.

That's odd?

Whilst having a cup of coffee and watching the birds in my garden fill their little bellies, I noticed a little blue tit and immediately thought, there's something not quite right here. I whipped out the binoculars which are tidily (not according to the wifey though) stashed away down the side of the arm chair. It took me a few seconds but then I soon realised it only had one leg. The whole time I watched it, I never saw it stand in an upright position, but instead in hung from the feeders upside down pecking at the fat blocks. I also noted that on it's only leg (the right one), the knee joint seemed quite swollen. I don't know if this is because the leg is doing all the work, or could it be an injury inflicted when it lost its other leg? Assuming that is, the leg was lost through some sort of mishap. Either way, the little thing, despite the missing appendage, looked relatively healthy and it wasn't long before he flew off again. I've been watching hoping for it to return, but as yet, nothing. I have however, spotted a ringed blue tit visiting the feeders, but unable to see what the digits are on the ring. 

On the subject of blue tits, the ones in the nest box still return every morning between 8-10am to check out the box, but they are yet to bring back any nesting material, which leads me nicely on to my next little project.

A use for unwanted fluff.

If you're lucky enough like me to own a tumble dryer, you would know that every now and then, the lint filter needs to be cleaned to remove all the fluff (lint) from your clothes/towels that collects up. Well I used to throw this lint away before one day a thought occurred to me, surely I can do something with this unwanted fluff, who would benefit from this fluffy fluff? 

This would make great nesting material I considered as I rolled the stuff through my fingers considering its uses. So I done no more and started to collect the said fluff in a plastic takeaway container (I knew they'd come in useful one day) and instructed the good old wifey to place any fluff in said tub. That was last autumn and needless to say, I have gathered a tub-full now and what with the birdies seeking out new nest sites like my nest box, I thought I would deploy the fluff using a whisk from the kitchen.

A tub-full of fluff.

Push the fluff into the whisk like so.
It should end up looking like this.
So as you can see from the above photos, I've placed some of the fluff into the whisk. Not too tightly though, as we want the birds to be able to pull it out easily. I then took the whisk up the back of the garden and have hung it up not far from the feeder. That way, the birds can see it and take it when they want.

Come and get it here!
It's been up a week and no takers yet, but then it is still quite early in the year. As soon as something happens though, I'll be sure to let you know. In the meantime though, you can check out my regular video postings of the blue tits visiting the nest box here.

Here's this weeks video:

The virgin voyage of the MK2

Last week saw some spring like temperatures during the day and I thought I'd put the new MK2 moth trap out to see how it performs.

The MK2 in action.
However, with clear skies, I knew the temperature would soon plummet as soon as the sun went down and the chances of catching anything would also plummet.

So, in the morning, I went down to the trap to have a look. Nothing was visible at first glance, but as I began to remove the egg trays, there tucked away in an egg cup of one of the trays was my first trapped moth of the year, a Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica).

Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica)
This brings my total moths for the year to a whopping 3. Lets hope there are many more to come.

I give you the Queen, long live the Queen...

Now, as many of you may know, among some of my projects this year is my main project Plan Bee. This involves me having a bumblebee nest in my office with a tube through the wall so that they can come and go as they please. There will also be a camera in the nest so I will be able to watch the goings on inside the hive and share it with you dear readers. I have all the equipment I need, camera, wood for the box, tube, permission from the wifey to drill hole through wall, etc. All that was left was a Queen bumblebee to initiate the hive. 

Now I could've gone down the easy route of buying a commercial hive, which many farmers use to help pollinate their fruit trees/shrubs etc. But the problem with this is that the species of bumblebee  and its origins used in this industry is a bit of a grey area to say the least. The problem is due to the fact that as per usual, there are no restrictions to the movement of bees through Europe, so we could be introducing a sub-species that isn't normally found here. There's also the issue of ecosystems and their delicate balance. By purchasing a bumblebee nest/hive, you are adding something to your local ecosystem that wasn't there in the first place. This in turn has an effect on the species of bee that WERE already in the ecosystem and the amount of food that is readily available to them. After all, all them flowering plants and trees will now be fed on by the 'new' bees. 

So for me, there was no question that my Queen bee would have to be a local wild bee caught fresh from hibernation. This way, the delicate ecosystem balance is not upset in any way, no foreign species are being introduced nor are any of the diseases they may carry being introduced either. My bee would know no different, would get a lovely, well located nest box with lots of lovely fresh pollen rich plants outside. 

Now all I had to do was catch said Queen bee and what with the lovely spring like weather (have I mentioned that already?) this week, I knew that some bumbles would pop out of their little hibernation chambers to top up on some food. Thursday was our first spell of warm weather and after seeing a queen bounce of my front room window before flying off, I decided to pop over to Purdis Heath to see if I could find any more. Whilst looking, I bumped into fellow Purdis Heath volunteer and blog reader (Hi Helen) looking for Purple-hairstreak butterfly eggs on the branches of a recently felled oak. Helen rears the caterpillars on to their adult stage before releasing them back onto the heath, great work Helen. Whilst chatting, Helen thought she saw a bumble dive down behind a bush, but search as we might, nothing could be found.

Fast forward to Saturday and another glorious day, when I suddenly get a text from Helen saying that she had just caught a large bumble at Purdis Heath and was I nearby? I was still trying to put on my shoes as I fell out of the front door in my rush to get there. 5 minutes later on I was on the heath meeting up with Helen and Julian Dowding (Head of volunteers at Purdis Heath) at exactly the same place as Thursday. They said the bee just came straight down and flew into one of their bags. They then just scooped it into a container and sent me a message. I looked at the bee at it was a beautiful Queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). A very common bumble that likes to nest in the ground, usually in mouse burrows and was the same species that nested in my garden last year, under my ponds waterfall, where I usually get mice nesting. So I popped her in a container with some sphagnum moss from the heath and whisked her home. Gave her a little sugar solution to replenish her energy levels, then after a quick picture (hence the blur), I popped her back into the container (an old coffee tin) and popped that in the fridge.

I give you the Queen!
Now some of you are already saying (believe me, I can hear you) "the fridge! That's cruel". Let me tell you now, it's not cruel, in fact it's simulating the winter temperatures outside. This cool temperature sends her into her hibernation sleep. When the weather warms up, she will awake and begin the task of building a nest for her workers. If I was to keep her awake and get her building her nest now, she would die and that is because of one simple reason, it's winter and there are no flowers out yet. What would she and her workers feed on? So by putting her in the fridge (NOT FREEZER) where the temperature is about 2-3ÂșC, I'm putting her back into a sleep ready for spring. 

In honour of Helen and as a thank you too, I'm naming said Queen after her. She will now be known as Queen Helen (the bee that is, not Helen). Thank you Helen.

Bumblebee kits, a warning!

Last year you may remember, I bought a Bumblebee nest box for about £20 to place in my garden in the hope of getting some bumbles to nest in it. Alas, they went under the waterfall as mentioned previously. However, I checked on the box the other week to see if anything had decide to nest in there and was shocked to find that the thing was wringing wet and in the process of rotting away even though it had been kept in a sheltered place, it seems as though the wood acted as a sponge and drew up the moisture from the soil.

The label from the kit I bought last year.
So, if you ever feel tempted to buy one of these kits, beware. You may be wasting your money!

5 minutes of your time please.

Thanks to reader Mick (Hi Mick), I saw this wonderful video narrated by George Monbiot on 'How wolves change rivers'. 

It is an amazing piece and I thoroughly recommend watching it as it shows just how delicate a balance the ecosystem is.

I think that's all for now my friends, but till next time, keep safe, keep smiling.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Project success!

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Here's my blog
And it's just for you!

Hello dear readers and a warm valentine welcome to you all and a special hello to a new follower to my blog, Caroline. Happy to have you aboard Caroline.

I know some of you are eager to find out how my little project got on, so I won't delay any more.

Footprint trap project results

As many of you know, I knocked up a simple little footprint tunnel trap to find out what was living down the bottom of my garden. Well day one passed and there was nothing to be seen, but come day two and I found this:

Pitter patter of tiny feet
It would seem that I have a hungry little mouse at the back of the garden, or maybe several mice as the whole supply of nuts that I laid as bait were gone. So the project was a success after just two days, unlike my Waxwing feeder which never attracted anything. But hey, if you don't try, you don't know. 

I came up with another little plan this week, but I will tell you more about that later when the weather gets better, in the meantime, back to my moth trap, the MK2.

Moth Trap MK2 completion.

Yes, as regular followers to my blog know, I decided to rebuild my moth trap after the original (MK1) got a little warped and buckled. The MK2 had to be stronger and sturdier and I when I thought I had finished it, Duncan (Twitter friend) pointed out it was missing the ever important rain guard. Well spotted Duncan.

I tried using perspex, but that just cracked and splintered everywhere, even when using a perspex saw, which I bought especially for the task. Thankfully, good old wifey and her artistic skills stepped in and she created a beautiful chunky glass rain guard.

The chunky glass rain guard.
All I had to do now was attach said guard to the moth trap. I did consider drilling two holes either side with a glass cutting drill bit, but knowing my luck, I'd still break it. Then, I had a brainwave that was soooo good, I had to have a lie down for the rest of the afternoon.

There's this new stuff called Sugru, which is pretty damn good. It's a silicone putty that can be moulded into any shape you require and it sets within 24 hours and is pretty strong when it sets too. In fact, you really should watch their video here (Feel free to send me some free samples Sugru ;))

So, with some Sugru

They even come in different colours, yellow, blue, red and black.
Some drilled aluminium lengths from a hobby shop

Easily bendable to the shape you require as shown.
and some magnets

Strong magnets, no crashing!
With one sachet of Sugru, I split it in half, rolled each into a ball and pushed a magnet into one side of it. Be sure you know what side up the magnets are, otherwise they won't stick to each other, they'll just repel.

Magnet pushed into Sugru
Then I stuck that onto the glass like so

Do I NEED to give this a caption?
I done the same to the opposite side of the circle and left for 24 hours to set. Next I measured cut and bent the aluminium strips into shape. Using another sachet of Sugru, and another two magnets, I done the same again (don't forget to check which way up they are!) and stuck them to the top like so

Magnet in place.
 Again, these were left for 24 hours.

OK, next day all should be set and ready to go. Let the aluminium strips connect via the magnets to the guard and then place the whole set up on your moth trap. This will show you where you need to attach the strips. Drill and screw the strips in place like so

Strips firmly screwed in place.
and then your lovely crafted rain guard just snaps into place like so

The finished item.
Now, roll on spring, lets have some moths.

News from the nest box

Yes, the nest box is still getting much interest from the blue tits. They seem to pay a visit every morning between 8-9am. 

I love the rigorous checking of the box to make sure it's structurally safe to raise a family in. So much so, it even removed a splinter from the entrance hole, very health and safety conscious.

Apparently, I was wrong last time when I said the male was checking out the interior whilst the female looked. "BurnleyFan" (no-one's perfect) on Youtube pointed out that it was the other way round as it's the female who does the wing shuffles in the box, making sure she has enough room. Thank you BurnleyFan, much appreciated.

Suffolk Naturalist's Society Conference

This is on tomorrow (15th February) at Wherstead Park, Ipswich and there's still time to buy tickets. There's going to be lots going on as you can see and I hope to see you there, please do say hello if you see me.

Until next time dear reader, keep safe, keep smiling

Saturday, 8 February 2014

A small winter project

Hello dear reader and a big hello and welcome to Eloi, my latest follower. Glad to have you aboard and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.

Progress at Purdis Heath

It's not much fun out there at the moment what with all the bad weather, high winds and rain. Even though temperature wise, it's quite mild out there, insects are still a bit thin on the ground. However, I popped over to the heath last weekend to meet up with friends who were working hard on the heath cutting back the birch and gorse to make a clearing to encourage the Silver-studded blues on to the heath.

The difference that's been made is fantastic and all involved have worked so hard and done so well, they should all be proud of themselves. Lets hope the butterflies appreciate the hard work too.

All this used to be trees.
As you can see from the above photo, a lot of trees were cleared. Now some may think that this is a bad thing, however, you have to remember that this was originally heathland before the trees took hold, hence the fall in SSB numbers.

Nothing is wasted.
The felled trees go to provide habitation piles which are great for insects and the creatures that feed upon them.  In the background, you can see some of the dead hedging that has been created from the felled trees. This again, not only provides a micro habitat for insects and other creatures, it is also to deter people and dogs from walking/charging through the heather and disturbing the breeding butterflies which lay their eggs upon the heather.

Tea's up!
Helen plays at being mum as the volunteers take a well deserved break above. Although it was a chilly wind, the rain held off and much work was done. There may or may not be another work party come March, all depending on how the season starts to pan out really. I will keep you updated here if you're interested on joining in the fun.

A little project

As I stated earlier, it's not much fun out there at the moment and whilst I was sitting bored indoors, I started to flick through my little book of projects and ideas and I came across this:
A mammal footprint trap
Now, this is something I've seen done on the BBC's Winterwatch program and even the Mammal Society sell one, but you know me, I wanted to see if I could produce one on the cheap. I had already sourced a small part of it cheaply, but I was struggling in finding something to make the tunnel from without having to cut & assemble something out of wood.

Then it suddenly dawned on me. Recently, I sold an old piece of equipment which I had to package in a cardboard tube. The cardboard tube in question was the old inner from a carpet roll which I got, would you believe, from a carpet shop! They usually throw these cardboard tubes away and although they are considered as waste to them, please don't go taking them from the skips at the back of shops, please ask the shop first, otherwise you could find yourself in a bit of hot water. Needless to say, this is what I did and they were only to happy to provide and actually thanked me for asking and not just taking. I didn't need the whole length of what I was given and therefore had a bit, just under a metre long, left over. 
The left over cardboard tube
Eureka! I exclaimed, well in my head anyway. I would use this left over bit of tubing for my little trap. I call it a trap, although, nothing gets trapped or hindered in anyway. It's just to find out what little critters are visiting my garden at night by leaving their footprints behind.

So, here's what you need and how I built it. As you can see, the tube is about 10cm in diameter. You really don't need anything smaller than this otherwise you begin to restrict what visits your feeder/trap.

A couple of ink pads
I purchased these ink pads as a pair for £3.90 on eBay and they measure 11cm x 7cm. These are what the animals will walk through to get to the food.

Easily remove the lid from the pads, but don't throw them away.
The lid is easily removed from the pad which is good for two reasons, first the lid will just get in the way and secondly, you can use it for a tray for the food. 

Then place the one lid and two pads in a line end to end. This will give you the length and size of hole you will need to cut into your cardboard tube as below.

Mark the size of hole you need to cut
The hole cut, again, don't throw away the cut piece.
Please be careful when cutting the tube, round objects are not the easiest to hold and knives/saws are sharp. Once you've cut your hole, don't throw away the cut out piece as you will need it. Using a bit of Blue Tack or double sided sticky tape, fix your pads and lid to the cut out piece like so:
Attaching the pads and lid using Blue Tack
It should end up looking something like this:
Ink pads and bait (remember to remove pad covers before siting).
So, that's the hard part done, next you will need two sheets of A5 paper or one sheet of A4 cut in half. Again, using Blue Tack or double-sided, stick the paper inside the end of the tubes on either side of where the end ink pads will be.
Paper in place.
This paper will be where the animal will leave its footprints and you should be able to easily remove it from the tube so you can see what has been nibbling your food.

The tube then will sit over the feed tray like so:

Tube being placed over the food tray.
Now I do realise that the tube is cardboard and rain is wet and the two don't really go together that well, so you will need to cover your tube to protect it from the elements. I opted for a simple black bin liner placed over the tube to help protect it. I know it won't last forever, but it's not intended to be a long term thing. I just want to know what's in my garden at night.

Bin liner in place.
The tube is then placed outdoors. Try to place it along a fence, wall or other linear object as small creatures like mice and voles don't venture out into the open much and prefer to use protected routes.
The trap in position.
Once you've found a place for your trap (don't forget to put the food in it), make sure it won't blow away or be easily disturbed and weight it down with some bricks or secure it with some sticks. I've placed my trap near the end of my garden near the bird feeder and along the edge of a flower bed.

Check the trap on a daily basis from both ends and make sure nothing is 'trapped' and if you find footprints, remove the piece of paper and check the prints out against this free downloadable footprint chart from the Mammal Society.

The chart from the Mammal Society.
Obviously, in a 10cm tube I'm not going to get Otters, Hares, badgers foxes or dogs and there are no Pine marten's in Suffolk, yet. But then, your tunnel doesn't have to be 10cm in diameter, you can have bigger if you wish. 

I've never tried this before and I look forward to what I might find. If you too try it out, please let me know what you found, I'm very interested. Most importantly of all, don't forget to record your findings either using the iRecord website or through the Mammal Society website.

That's all for this week, hope you have fun. Till next time, keep smiling, keep safe.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Better than Eastenders.

Hello everyone, hope you're all happy and well. The weather of late has been a bit wet to say the least and for some poor people, there's still no let up to it.

It's during these dull winter days when I try to get some things done that I lapsed in finishing last year. One of these was sorting out the hundreds of photos that I take. Getting pics into the right folders, sorting the wheat from the chaff, that sort of thing. As I was doing this, I came across this photo, which surprisingly, I'd forgotten all about.

So let me whisk you back to the heady summer days of August last year when I decided to go and check out Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Redgrave and Lopham Fen. I remember it well, as I was originally on the hunt for Raft spiders, to which I found none. But I did come across this dramatic scene (in wildlife terms) that would definitely earn the 'dum dum dum's' from the end scene of Eastenders. I will warn you now, there is a picture of a spider in it (sorry).

The spider, the bee and the beetle.
So let me expelling what is going on here. We have a dead bumblebee that is actually being hauled up into the lair of a female spider who is under the curled leaf. At the bottom of the picture, is the male spider who has just had his wicked way with the female spider and is now making a hasty retreat (more on this below). In the middle of all this drama is a little Anthocomus rufus beetle who is daringly, trying to sneak a free meal.

Now more on the male spider. As some of you may know, male spiders have a difficult time when it comes to copulation because the female spider is most likely going to eat him afterwards. So the male has to time his move at the right moment so as to avoid being predated upon and there is no better time to do this than when the female spider is preoccupied with another meal, in this case, the poor old bumblebee. So there you have it, a whole drama caught in one shot which just goes to prove, it's there if you look for it.


A recent delivery of firewood arrived at my house and as it was tipped onto the road, a small moth fluttered free from the cascading wood. Being the ever vigilant, coiled spring that I am, I jumped into action and caught the fluttering moth before it disappeared out of reach and never to be seen again. The moth was squirrelled away in to a little specimen pot ready for identifying later. This I did after the wood was put away. Now I ID'd using the moth book as Agonopterix yeatiana, a moth that is found all year round in these parts. I took a couple of pictures and sent them to Suffolk's County Moth Recorder Tony Pritchard (very nice man) to confirm, and confirm he did. He confirmed I got it wrong! However, I was close, I was in the right tribe, just the wrong species and all for a white dot!

So, here's a picture of the moth I caught.
My little moth, thought to be Agonopterix yeatiana
Here's the pictures from the Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland (by P. Sterling & M. Parsons with illustration by R Lewington). It's an excellent book and the art work by Richard Lewington is truly fantastic and has detail beyond compare, as you will soon see.

The moth I thought it was:

A yeatiana by R Lewington

The moth it turned out to be:

A arenella by R Lewington
Now, the eagle eyed amongst you will spot the one thing I didn't, the lack of white spot in the middle of the black spot underneath the large black smudge. So, as you see, it pays to get photos of the the specimens you spot. This all helps to prevent any mis-identification when submitting records and this whole episode just goes to show how important our specialist naturalists are. Thank you Tony for your help, very much appreciated. It also goes to show how precise the artwork of Richard Lewington's is and I can thoroughly recommend this book and its sister book on Macro moths to anyone who wants to get into moths.

The second moth I came across was spotted by my wifey on the living room wall and within seconds, once I found a specimen pot, it was captured, ID'd and photographed before being released out into the big wide world. So, what was the moth? Again, it was a micro moth by the name of Alucita hexadactyla or more commonly known as the Twenty-plume moth or the 20p moth.

The 20p moth
As you can see from the above photo, the wings are made up of plumes and as you may guess, there's 20 of them.

So, these finds have kicked off my Garden Moth Challenge year. As you may remember, I took part in this last year, there are no prizes and it's just for fun. There are many people taking part and everyone is so helpful in helping anyone of any level to get an ID on their moths.

More activity from the nest box

The Blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) have been back and it really is looking serious as this time, he brought his partner along for a viewing and also done a bit of tidying up.

You may have noticed in these videos, a piece of straw laying at the bottom of the box. This was placed here by me but I originally placed it to hang out of the entrance hole. The reason I did this was that whenever I looked at the box from the outside, I would see the piece of straw hanging out and would know that there had been no activity. If the straw was missing, then something had visited the box and it would be time to check out the video to see if anything was happening. Obviously, the Blue tit didn't like this piece of straw and promptly removed it, a good sign.

That's it for this week, hope you enjoyed and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.

Till next time, keep safe, keep happy and take care